Extent of Saudi prison torture revealed in new report 

The report by the Human Rights Watch exposes the lack of accountability for the extreme acts of torture, as well as the complicity of the Saudi legal and other institutions in covering up and enabling these human rights violations to continue unabated

July 21, 2021 by Abhijan Choudhury
(L-R) Samar Badawi, Aziza al-Yousef, Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, Nassima al-Sada, Mohammad al-Bajadi (Photo: Amnesty International )

A report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) published on July 11 has revealed new evidence of torture against prisoners, including women activists, in Saudi Arabia. The report is based on a series of text messages by anonymous Saudi prison guards stationed at the Dhabhan prison, north of Jeddah, and another secret prison. The report confirms previous allegations and describes in depth the dehumanization of detainees by the Saudi prison authorities. 

In one text message, a prison guard describes the torture endured by a prominent Saudi woman activist arrested in May 2018. He says, “in one of her torture sessions, [name withheld] lost consciousness and we were all terrified. We feared that she had died and that we would bear responsibility because the instructions were to not kill any of the detainees, men or women.” 

In another message, he reveals details about a particular episode of torture in which prison interrogators sexually harassed well-known Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul. The text said that “Loujain al-Hathloul was subjected to sexual harassment unprecedented to me from what I’ve witnessed. They were relishing insulting her. They were mocking her that she is liberated and would not mind the harassment such as sticking their hands into her underwear or touching her thighs or spouting degrading words at her.” Loujain was one of the most vocal figures in the campaign which eventually succeeded in winning the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. She was also vocal against the Saudi male guardianship system which makes women heavily dependent on their male relatives for getting employment, traveling abroad, getting married, and even accessing healthcare.

Mohammed al-Rabea, among the hundreds of male activists being detained in the country, was also subjected to unusual cruelty, according to the testimony of the prison guards. One of the messages states that “al-Rabea was among the people who was tortured beyond his capacity to endure, especially when the interrogator learned that he suffers from back pain and so he started to get creative with his torture, targeting already painful locations to the extent that he was not able to go to the bathroom without us helping him get there.” The HRW report mentions prison authorities subjecting al-Rabea to electric shocks, waterboarding, beatings, confining him into small spaces, hanging him upside down, and depriving him of meals, rest and sleep.

Another imprisoned male human rights activist was reportedly tortured and beaten up. According to the prison guard’s text, he saw the victim virtually lifeless and expected him to die, but “the doctor comes and helps him with painkillers and other medicine to revive him. Then they would again torture him.” 

Such accounts have in the past routinely been brought to light by HRW and other human rights groups such as Amnesty International. There have been demands to allow international observers and investigators into the country to examine and investigate these allegations. These calls have only grown louder as Saudi courts and multiple Saudi human rights commissions have repeatedly cleared the authorities of any wrongdoing, putting their own credibility and independence in question. 

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s worst countries in terms of human rights abuses and state violence against citizens, taking the second last position just ahead of Mexico, according to recent data by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative. The country has also regularly featured in the list of the world’s most prolific users of the death penalty, executing hundreds of its own citizens following unfair, secret trials based on vague and overly broad charges related to terrorism and national security. In many cases, the convictions are obtained after extracting false confessions through torture. This makes the case for international human rights monitors and investigators even more urgent. 

The deputy Middle East and North Africa director for HRW, Michael Page, in a statement accompanying the report said that “new evidence alleging Saudi Arabia’s brutal torture of women’s rights advocates and other high-profile detainees further exposes Saudi Arabia’s utter contempt for the rule of law and failure to credibly investigate these allegations. Letting abusers off the hook sends the message that they can torture with impunity and never face accountability for such crimes. The stench of torture and other horrific treatment of Saudi detainees will stick to Saudi leaders unless they take urgent steps to stop these crimes and hold the abusers to account, even at the highest levels.” 

HRW has urged the Saudi government to allow independent international monitors to enter the country and conduct investigations into these claims of torture. It has also asked the government to put an end to the ongoing repression of activists and dissidents by “vacating all charges, convictions, and sentences imposed on women’s rights activists and others based solely on their activism and peaceful expression of their views.”

Several well-known Saudi women activists working towards advancing women’s rights in the country have been demanding the regime to repeal regressive, outdated and highly discriminatory laws and customs against women, including the male guardianship system and the recently-allowed right of women to drive. These women activists have been subjected to various forms of intimidation and torture, widely reported by human rights groups that have documented cases of brutal physical assaults, electric shocks, whippings, sexual harassment, and extreme long lasting mental, emotional and physical trauma against women activists.

Since its beginning, the Saudi authoritarian regime, which rules by the rigid Wahabi interpretation of Islamic law, has engaged in a systematic repression of critics, dissidents and activists fighting for civil rights and progressive change in the country. It left no stone unturned to preserve and prolong its long hold on power in one of the world’s most oil-rich countries. Many human rights defenders, free speech and pro-democracy activists, as well as Saudi citizens from the minority Shia Muslim community demanding equal treatment in society and under the law have been brutally persecuted and silenced using medieval and unjust laws and restrictions. The threat and use of torture, death penalty, and punitive actions against family members have been used to silence critics.